Prey (2017)

What’s immediately striking about Prey has little to do with the actual game. It’s a complete marketing disaster. It has the same name as a forgettable game from the late oughts that never got a true sequel, except it’s actually a spiritual sequel to the shock style of games (System Shock/Bioshock). My first encounter with it was a commercial during the NBA playoffs, my reaction something along the lines of “huh, OK”. I forgot about it until I chanced upon mention of it in a forum thread months later.

Which is too bad. It’s a decent game. Though far from perfect and ultimately dissatisfying.

After a delightfully creepy intro, you, Morgan Yu, wake up aboard Talos I, a spacestation floating between the Earth and moon that was slowly assembled in an alternate history wherein JFK was never assassinated and the US/Soviets reached some kind of peace & cooperation w/r/t space exploration. It’s now 2035 and technology has gone down different paths than our own timestream. The hip new tech in Prey is the “neuromod”, which allows you to inject other people’s skills (whether being a great athlete or musician or whatever) into your own brain to gain that knowledge and affinity. This is what is used to augment your character as well, though the gameplay mechanics here don’t live up to the premise (largely limited to: take a few neuromods for your basic +10 to shooting or movespeed).

I’m not certain if this gametype has a name. I’ve pejoratively termed it the “sneak around and read people’s mail” genre. What’s interesting about games from Bioshock to Prey is they build this utterly compelling, immersive environment — Talos 1 is absolutely believable as a real place — and then construct a bafflingly implausible and gamey method of delivering the narrative. Whether this be Bioshock’s audio diaries scattered everywhichwhere, various actors proclaiming every private aspect of their lives, or Prey’s workstations with their conveniently left behind passwords, identical interfaces and 3-email inboxes. Indeed, 3 emails that happen to reveal tantalizing morsels of plot. These titles take far more pride in their narrative than most video games yet remain shackled to “shoot things and read/listen to static things.”

Anyway, the environments are so good, that it still kind of works. For a while. Sneaking around Talos I, using my paltry skills to dodge or eliminate the aliens skulking around, piecing together stories of just what went wrong, was engaging. When my enthusiasm started to flag, the game smartly introduced some survivors for me to worry about. But the fact of the matter is that you can only sustain a game so long on dubious combat and reading emails. Prey does itself no favors by having sparse plot, stretched entirely too thin. You could break the whole narrative down to a few story beats, with too many distractions in between.

You encounter intriguing plot device —
Oh no, you can’t reach the intriguing plot device because the power is out —
You turn the power back on —
You’re treated with a tiny morsel of plot, but oh no, the macguffin you need to see the next part is broken
You go fix it —
But now you’re locked out of the station
Etc etc etc.

I must have played through about 80% of the game in a week and spent the next two+ limping to the conclusion. Not limping — holding down sprint and running by all the new enemies just to reach the story’s end. It’s a very uneven experience.

 

American Tabloid by James Ellroy

I nearly put this book down after the first few pages. The writing was snappy, stylish, quick. It also pulls no punches and the first chapters reveal a cast of protagonists engaged in brutal violence, seemingly amoral, openly racist, antisemitic, misogynist, you name it.

Ellroy is eager and emphatic to prove his opening sentence, his great thrust:

America was never innocent.

Our heroes, shake down men and corrupt cops and FBI agents on the fast track to losing their conscience, are either terrible people or on their way to becoming so. Murder, torture, corruption. Five hundred pages of it. It’s alleviated somewhat by the fact that these guys aren’t even the worst the country has to offer — the mob and the US government, often-hand-in-loving-hand, are worse. Never innocent.

This book is like six hundred pages. You can’t really do six hundred pages of complete revulsion. Well. I can’t anyway. So what happens? You reach a point, this sort of nadir of disgust, and then you float past it. Embrace it, maybe. America was built on corpses, worshiped corrupt heroes like the coward-womanizer John Kennedy, was in bed with organized crime while endlessly persecuting innocents, so who gives a shit? Stop hating Pete and instead cheer on his massacres. Microwave into the bathtub, alright, great. Burn it to the fucking ground.

It’s hard to say if this is some kind of catharsis or an absolution of responsibility w/r/t the American present. I don’t know.

Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

The Familiar Volume 4: Hades by Mark Z. Danielewski

famililar4This far in, my reviews will become much more specific. Previous entries: One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain.

I’m starting to get worried here. The series has gone from front and center in the new section of Green Apple Books to requiring a kind of sojourn where I have to ask multiple people and look all over for the latest episode. “Looks like there is no review copies this time”, says the clerk. I fear for the series reaching 25 or whatever.

Which is a shame, because Volume 4 is excellent. It finally, finally, begins to get over the issue I had taken in the past few volumes: Too slow. Characters treading water. Hades drives the characters together, develops plot and mystery. Even Shnork, our most aimless character, coughing and driving his cab around for 3 volumes, receives the character development he sorely needed.

Nearly every chapter has some relationship to the greater plot. Anwar is still job hunting, but this thread now takes him down shadowy corporate wormholes. Most of the characters have now converged on LA. Ozgur meets half the rest of the cast, previously isolated. It’s all tense and well connected. Though not flawless. Erstwhile and supremely creepy hitman Isandorno spends most of the book with a mysterious woman, whose identity is heavily hinted at (and it’s intriguing), and then spends his last chapter doing nothing.

Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of teasing — we leave one character with a warehouse full of guns and an idea of what they’re going to do with them. Actually now that I think of it, there’s two characters with cliffhangers involving separate gun mysteries. But with the next volume referred to as the “Season 1 finale”, this feels appropriate, and I’m seriously looking forward to this fall.

The series has flirted with horror and continues to do so. Danielewski achieved notoriety through House of Leaves, of course, and his grasp on spatial horror remains sharp. Xanther’s little sisters are plagued by nightmares (surely the kitten is to blame…), and in one scene, one of them is crying and pointing at a corner, repeating “There is a ladder in the floor.” Instant chills.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

rings-of-saturnW. G. Sebald takes a walk around southeast England and ponders the inescapable decay of the world. Whether caused by humans, like Belgium ravaging the Congo, or through force of nature, as shown by a medieval town gradually eroding and falling into the sea, or weird fixtures of economics, like yet another defunct English town going down the drain after the fishing industry collapsed. Sebald draws a melancholy line through them all.

I love a good book of essays, and while that is not what I expected to find here, that’s what it is. Essays in the true Montaigne-made sense: examining singular topics to give greater insight into humanity as a whole. Rembrandt’s paintings. Portions of Chinese history I never knew of. A biography of Joseph Konrad or a continued adoration of Thomas Browne. Sebald finds trivial reasons to link these and many other topics to his wandering, and dives in it detail, then flutters to a separate topic, going through a nested set of essays several deep, before we return back to England.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht notes that an awe and respect for death is one of the lesser known aspects of achieving happiness. While I wouldn’t be thrilled watching my home or local three hundred year old cathedral plummet into the sea, reading about those unfortunate souls who did, immersing myself in the knowledge that all things must decay, perish, crumble, yes, just like the planetary wreckage that became the real rings of Saturn, eventually leads me to a place of calm serenity. 

The same can’t be said for man-made catastrophe. The sheer amount of people slain by greed and madness in the Congo is incomprehensible. Literally worked to death. Lost to history. That just leads me to despair.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Out.out

Out.

Out.

It’s what our protagonists — four women working the nightshift at a boxed lunch factory — seek most. Not an escape from the extraordinary circumstances they eventually find themselves in, but the merciless daily grind. No money. Dependent relatives. Depression. Shit jobs. An oppressive and sexist society that prescribes its worse roles for women.

So when one of the women strangles her abusive husband, the other three casually agree to help almost without thinking. It either takes them out of the funk they’re mired in or provides the means they desperately need to get out.

This book is rough. Desperation is its most common tenor, enhanced greatly by the sticky August air and the constant black-circled exhaustion of the late night factory shift. Few of the characters are particularly likeable and while the protagonists generally don’t “deserve” the things that happen to them, they certainly did their share in putting themselves in bad positions. Not that there was much choice. Sexual violence is an undercurrent running throughout. Nearly all the men have some kind of vice or perversion that stalks them almost like a demon, always seeking to wrest control.

While ostensibly a crime novel, horror is the genre that fits best. A creeping horror that turns descriptions of grocery store aisles into nightmares.

Pink slices of ham. Red shoulder of beef shot through with whitish sinews. Pale pink pork. Fine-grained ground beef, red, pink, and white. Dark red chicken gizzards outlined in yellowish fat.

The novel’s great weakness is that the ending is miserable nonsense. It is balanced on attaining some sort of empathy with an absolutely monstrous antagonist. You know when you see a villain proclaim to hero “You’re exactly like me/we’re the same/whatever”, and about 95% of the time this is completey ridiculous and they’re either nothing alike or they’re superficially similar but the villain has done dramatically worse things? Yeah, that. Except worse given the way the sexual violence and acceptance of it undermines much of the main text beforehand.

SPQR by Mary Beard

spqrRome. Oft cited as the foundation of western society, and thus a topic of perennial interest. From direct rhetorical links between Cicero and modern speakers (Barrack Obama for example), to the not-exactly tenuous link between gladiators and American football, to our conceptions of liberty and democracy. We return to them again and again in all kinds of fiction.

Beard picks apart the empire’s mythical beginnings, rising and falling Republic, and dictatorial ascension. Romulus and Remus were certainly made up, but what about the old Roman kings? How did the Senate start? In chronological order, SPQR attempts to answer these questions and plenty more.

Given our current political and social times, there’s Roman arguments that feel particularly relevant. One quote from a Roman orator declaiming all the non-Romans suddenly flooding the city easily matches the hateful rhetoric that xenophobic leaders the world round are currently spewing. I bookmarked this quote but then lost the book on an airplane which is the only reason I don’t type it out here. The question of who should be Roman and should not was a question that went on and on for hundreds of years, never truly resolved. 

Beard cautions against drawing too many similarities. She cites the prevalence of slavery at the time or their horrendously inaccurate view on medicine. I’d barely agree with Beard even there, as we still have such institutionalized levels of power, if not quite to the point of ownership.

Another point that Beard nails home is that we spend so much time pondering the personalities of Rome’s emperors, their sadism, excess, philosophy, bloody deaths. Yet, how much did that actually affect the regular people of the empire? Maybe not much at all. The problem is we know so much less about the non-wealthy of ancient times — they had less so they left much less behind. As a result, even with Beard’s digging we still don’t know much about them, other than some fascinating tidbits about bar culture apartment setup.

I enjoyed the book. It put things into a linear perspective I did not yet have, with all my knowledge of ancient Rome being a hodgepodge of history books and popular fiction. But I have to admit, at the same time, I’m just not sure why this book is so celebrated and great. It was a fairly straightforward account with some fascinating points. That’s it! I’m glad I read it but far from blown away.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

executionerssongIt’s true. There really is nothing like it.

Eleven hundred pages of narrative journalism. Gary Gilmore is released from prison, tries to re-integrate while being a nuisance to friends and families, falls in love with Nicole Barrett, murders two innocent people for no reason, is put on trial and convicted, given the death penalty, refuses to appeal, is executed. In detail both scintillating and banal.

Unlike In Cold Blood, this is not a book trying to understand why Gilmore did the things he did. He spent half his life in prison and was trouble since he was a child. Truth be told, he was a huge asshole. Selfish and racist and manipulative, often under the guise of eloquent and grandiose language. Indeed, his spiel about why he never appealed his death sentence — because he was responsibly accepting his punishment as determined by the people — was a complete farce. He just didn’t want to live out the rest of his life in prison.

Generally the defenses of capital punishment — punishment, deterrence, removing a future threat — are kind of bullshit. But the last might have actually applied to Gary. If he got out, no one would be surprised if he hurt anyone again. Also, the typical criticism of capital punishment: that the state does not have the right to kill anyone, while still true and certainly disturbing when reading of the attorney general and co. scrambling into a rickety plane in the middle of the night to sprint through the Denver circuit court to avoid a stay of execution, does lose a bit of steam when the defendant actually does not want to die.

Yet, willing or no, sociopathic asshole or no, it’s hard to describe the execution as anything other than utterly wrong. On something almost like a primordial level, before you even get to moral. Killing another human, regardless of justification, is just psychologically damaging. The body rebels. Even the people who fought for the execution, or the men who voluntarily carried it out, either felt it was wrong afterwards or had to continously convince themselves they did the right thing. It was only the conservative Utah public, far from the body and blood and gunshots, that could approve with great moral righteousness and zero qualms. Despite a cynical and hobbesian notion of human nature that many subscribe to, we are simply not well-equipped for close-quarters human-to-human violence. It only becomes easy through distance and dissonance.

Don’t get me wrong though. This is not an opinion actively espoused by Mailer. The narrative is trying very hard (successfully) to be as impartial as possible. It’s a major strength of the book. No where is this more clear than in characterization of Nicole Baker. Teen mother neglecting her children, sleeping with pretty much anybody, messed up priorities, and firmly entrenched in the web of Gary Gilmore. There’s many ways this could go wrong. But Mailer’s clinical prose, striving to make the voice as close as possible to the real Nicole, slots the reader firmly into her state of mind. Makes it possible to understand how she was sucked into Gary’s web.

The book does have one clear weakness. After Gary is convicted, several TV producers fall on the scene trying to buy up the rights to all the prominent character’s stories. Chief among them is Larry Schiller. While it’s interesting, both the parasitic nature of the media and internal conflicts between money and morality layered therein, there is way, way too much Larry. One hundred pages too many. At least. The only point I would say The Executioner’s Song bored me was when it strayed too far from Gary and Nicole and the rest.

Great stuff.

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

dreamlandHeroin like pizza and pills like candy.

This fascinating piece of long-form journalism details the simultaneous rise of heroin-dealing entrepreneurs from Mexico’s west coast and the gross spread of misinformation and corporate greed that led to doctors massively over prescribing oxycontin in the United States.

The scale of this problem, heroin/pill addiction, can’t be overstated. Largely white areas of the country have astounding levels of addiction and overdose death, well beyond deaths caused by car accidents. It can be easy to avoid if you live in a large city, but out in the suburbs and rural regions, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone addicted to heroin. I traveled to Michigan for work last month and there were commercials and billboards everywhere about treatment. Unlike a bunch of other drugs, a heroin addict needs their fix everyday, or they risk crippling withdrawal symptoms. This combined with the cheap potency of the drug make overdose a constant reality.

Quinones outlines two major triggers for this:

  1. Until some time in the 80s, prescribing opiates, the fruit of the poppy seed (along with heroin) was anathema. Doctors and other medical professionals were concerned with the very real risks of addiction. Slowly, as ‘patient-centric’ care became more of a focus and pain-management became an important aspect of medicine, this stance was relaxed, particularly for those with terminal illnesses (where addiction is less of an issue anyway, for obvious reasons).

The problem arose when a confluence of factors led to the completely baseless notion that somehow opiates were actually not addictive. Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin jumped on an oft-misinterpreted editorial claiming only 1% of patients have a risk for addiction from opiates and marshalled their enormous sales and marketing engine to drill that number into the heads of all the doctors they showered with gifts. (This was before the laws of the early 2000s put a stop to the worst marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.)

Somewhat predictable result: Unprecedented numbers of people are suddenly addicted to painkillers.

2. Heroin, like all hard drugs, used to have the perception of something you’d need to brave a dangerous ghetto to acquire. Maybe you’ll get shot. Dealers from the small village of Xalisco changed this business completely. By cheaply farming poppy in their native mountains, they carried it over the border and sold it from their cars, using customer-friendly marketing techniques not unfamilar to US corporations: an easily accessible phone number that triggered door-to-door service (Uber for heroin), manned by savvy and eager young men who would offer discounts or drill down on those who seemed ready to quit.

Put these two together and now you’ve got patients addicted to oxycontin who easily make the switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to buy than oxy (or no one will prescribe it to them anymore).

It’s a ghastly business.

While a stunning tale, the book does have its problems. Namely, it’s extremely repetitive. Quinones repeats the same point many, many times. Sometimes in very similar language. I understand he spent five years of his life on this and wants to insert everything he learned but many chapters are retreads of another. Still, it was a startling and detailed read that I’d highly recommend.